A vistor dropping by Villanova practices two seasons ago previewed Markus Kennedy’s future.
A freshman scrapping for minutes in the Wildcats’ rotation, the Philly native was wise enough to know to lend his ear. When Larry Brown pulls you aside, pay attention.
Unemployed but ever curious, the coaching legend, known as much for this 12 stops as he is for winning NCAA and NBA titles, would drop by practices at Nova, Kentucky and Kansas to keep the mind of hardwood savant from going stale.
And, whether he realized it or not, taking in Jay Wright’s practices was recruiting the future low-post cog for his rebuilding job at top-seed SMU (24-9), which faces No. 5 LSU (20-13) at 8 p.m. tonight in the second round of the NIT at Moody Coliseum.
“The only thing that’s different in practice now is he can stop me more,” said Kennedy, who transferred to SMU after his freshman season. “And do it without worrying coach Wright.”
The scoffs after Brown, now 73 years old, was hired have stopped, too.
Within a week of landing the job, he jettisoned four players from his roster, including telling starting point guard Jeremiah Samarippas he wasn’t good enough to hold on to his roster spot.
Next, Brown shopped hard on the transfer market.
First, he imported Illinois guard Crandal Head, a former four-star recruit who saw limited action in two seasons. Next, point guard Nic Moore, an member of the Missouri Valley Conference’s All-Freshman team, was lured to the Dallas suburb of Unviersity Park.
Finally, there was Kennedy.
And it certainly helped that former Texas forward Shawn Williams and former Kansas State guard Nick Russell were eligible during Brown’s first season.
Fitting those pieces together, though, is a task easier in the hands of seasoned eye such as Brown’s, LSU coach Johnny Jones said.
“You have and be mindful of not just building teams for just having winning seasons like he hadn’t done that, but in terms of building program,” Jones said. “He’s got good people, the right kids.”
Presto, a simply average roster was stocked with high-major talent and being honed by one of the sport’s best teachers.
“It was a great opportunity for me to come to a program and create some history,” Kennedy said. “It wanted to be at the start of that.”
And elite prospects inside the Metroplex took note, too. Brown landed five-star guard Keith Frazier in his first recruiting class, and scored a coup with point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect out of Prime Prep.
LSU forward Jordan Mickey, who played alongside Mudiay last season, hails from the suburb of Arlington and calmly laid out what the city’s best thought of SMU before Brown’s hiring.
“A lot of people wasn’t looking to go there,” Mickey said Friday.
Under different circumstances, maybe Mickey would under Brown’s tutelage instead of Jones, who still mines the Dallas area heavily after spending 12 seasons at North Texas.
Yet the Tigers’ coach didn’t elaborate on the challenges of trying carve out a foothold at SMU, which has to contend with UNT and TCU inside its metro area and other in-state competitors from Texas, Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
“I only know about building at UNT,” Jones said.
Of course, it’s helped that Moody Coliseum, which first opened in 1956, underwent a $47 million renovation to go along with signing the nation’s No. 14 recruiting class. Suddenly, a program with little tradition had the coach, facilities and talent influx to contend in the American Athletic Conference.
In the past two weeks, SMU’s reputation is now one of a program left out on the NCAA tournament doorstep after limping down the stretch with losses to Memphis, Louisville and a first-round upset to Houston in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Playing the nation’s No. 303 non-conference schedule, too, didn’t bolster their bubble profile, either.
“We were upset about it,” Kennedy said. “There’s a chip on our shoulder now. We want to go out and win the NIT, and come back next season hungrier.”
And, perhaps, Monday night might be a teaser for future meetings in March’s higher-profile event.
“It’s two teams that are coming up,” LSU forward Shavon Coleman said. “It’s like a NCAA tournament game.”